How can you increase enrollment at a small university or college? Allow me to digress.
While growing up on a farm in eastern Canada, frigid winters meant we no longer have access to food and needed supplies for our dairy cattle. We needed to ensure we stored enough hay/grain/corn to enable us to not only survive winter but to emerge well into a new season of productivity when we started the winter preparation all over again.
So, in the springtime, we worked to be more efficient at planting crops through new machinery and data metrics that allowed us to know the best years to rotate fields—when to plant crops, and when to optimize the harvest.
These new innovations changed the game for our local farm, allowing us to work more effectively and timely.
At first, my dad was skeptical of them, thinking he knew the land best. However, through the encouragement of my brother and others, he took small steps and quickly found out the advantages of these “New Ways”!
The first winter the herd had less sickness and produced more milk than had previously been experienced during those barren months. He quickly moved to these “New Ways” the next spring and never looked back.
These lessons from the farm for increasing productivity have helped me to increase university enrollment.
I have served in higher education leadership for the past 23 years, with 15 of those years in senior-level positions. During that time, three enrollment growth problems kept sprouting, looking for solutions. I present them here as challenges to you and your school with some proven solutions.
1. What course changes can you make to reduce the financial losses of under-enrolled courses?
This is an extremely difficult question to answer for leadership teams. The issue I’ve encountered was most often—did they have the will to make the change? And if they did make a change, the next consideration was—will it change the mission? And if the change involves faculty—will it create turf wars them? Yes, even in a Christian institution?
So, a culture of cooperation and getting buy-in from all stakeholders during the brainstorming, planning, and change is critical.
Here are some of these enrollment-growth changes to consider:
- Ask some faculty to engage in the recruiting efforts by offering shorter forms of their course to potential students, encouraging them to enroll in their university.
- Consider sharing courses that tend to have lower enrollment with like-minded universities to offset the financial burden.
- Consider ways to modify degree programs and their financial plans that are more feasible for all parties involved.
- Brainstorm other “new ways” with a variety of faculty and staff.
2. Is your Christian school investing in technology in ways that enable you to connect with the students of this generation, increase enrollment, and keep them enrolled?
I had the chance to speak with several auditors who review the financial records of colleges/universities. I discovered that most institutions are not handling deferred maintenance issues with their physical buildings.
I asked, “How are these same schools dealing with the area of technology?”
The senior auditor replied, “They’re not investing at all in the needed infrastructures. They’ll likely be caught flat-footed by what is coming from more innovative institutions.”
Building and maintaining your school’s technology infrastructure is just as critical as your physical building infrastructure.
Students today are highly technology adept. If schools do not soon adjust their IT budgets to teach and communicate with students within these technology realities, it is going to be very difficult for them to compete.
For example, I worked with a school that was utilizing four different systems to communicate to prospective students during the admissions process (the reasoning was to save money). However, we could not properly track our communication stream with them. Sometimes they did not receive timely information. Sometimes we over-communicated, which made us look incompetent. All the while our competition had a seamless CRM, enabling them to provide timely and effective responses.
What does your investment look like in people, systems, and partners to meet the need young adults have to communicate efficiently and effectively through technology?
Have you resourced your IT team with enough staff and budget to fully operate your Learning Management System (LMS), Customer Service Management, Advancement software, Financial Aid software, social media, website, alumni, and partnership connection systems?
3. How can your college increase enrollment pipelines?
Beyond communicating well with prospective students, the traditional pipelines for recruitment are experiencing unparalleled tumult and are providing fewer students to the market. The old model involved purchasing contacts of potential students; if we did not reach our enrollment goals that year, then we purchased more names.
I was part of a team purchasing names of potential students, which was one of our methods for meeting our goal of enrolling 300+ new students.
We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars purchasing leads, and each year the vendor would celebrate adding five students through this process.
We could not keep spending our money on these old ways, so I learned a new/better way.
We decided to match our goal with our budget—if we spent 40% of our budget on any marketing endeavor, it should at least achieve 40% of our goal. Enrolling five new students fell extremely short of our goal!
Here is one way we achieved our new goal and it might work for your college as well.
One team member suggested we revisit our relationships with our traditional partners and pipelines, who used to refer new students to us. We discovered that our previous pipelines had begun to walk away from us because we had adjusted money away from those relationships.
We immediately started a campaign to rebuild engagement with those partners. One of those was a nearby private school that used to send half a dozen students every year but were now sending zero students to us.
I reached out to the school and met with the leaders, who told me what they needed to build more effective communication with them. Over the next two years, they sent 18 students to us. The cost was only in the thousands of dollars. What did we spend the fewer dollars on?
- We made personal visits with the guidance team, who helped identify mission fit students for our institution.
- We set aside scholarships for students from this private school.
- We also covered transportation costs for juniors and seniors to come to our college on a bus tour.
These strategic low-cost investments allowed us to meet our goal each year, partly because we implemented new communication tools to help reestablish old partners and develop new relational sources for students.
I hope the solutions presented here has sparked some hope, enthusiasm, and desire to carefully consider making changes and invest in new ways of growing your school’s enrollment.
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